Fast Company

Ride the Rollercoaster

Part VI: The Growth of a Brand. Karen Post continues to offer branding lessons from a social-networking start-up.

If you've just joined us, Oddpodz is a new online community for creative doers and problem solvers. Founder and branding expert Karen Post, who writes a regular column for fastcompany.com, brings you the play by play of a startup brand.

Roller Coasters: Just Enjoy the Ride

8:00 AM -- A stranger sends a friendly email saying they discovered Oddpodz through a blog and absolutely love what we are doing.

8:15 AM -- A key investment firm that we felt was positively "100% in" says it will pass on the Oddpodz investment opportunity.

8: 19 AM - Sparrows are chirping yet I'm so stressed out I feel only one emotion: "Stop that chirping or I will kill you all!"

8:23 AM -- Receive an order confirmation notice from the online store. I'm ecstatic about the product sale but it turns out to be on a fraudulent credit card.

8:30 AM -- Five baby mice and their two parent rodents stroll past my desk. I'm freaked out but can't stand on my office chair and scream because it has wheels on it.

9:00 AM -- I have a 10 O'clock conference call with a potential investor and need to be 500% on top of my game. I'm hallucinating and still see beady mouse eyes and rodent tails everywhere.

9:15 AM -- Knocked over my coffee mug. It just missed my keyboard.

9:20 AM -- A New York City reporter shoots me an email saying how our interview last week inspired her to a new level.

This is a slow morning in the life of a start-up. Every day is full of highs and lows. The secret is how you react to the bumps, enjoy the victories, and manage to juggle all the balls in the air.

I suppose it could be much worse -- like those folks that paid to ride a roller coaster, then mid-ride the power went off and left them hanging upside down for 30 minutes.

In June, we relocated our business from Tampa, Florida to Savannah, Georgia buoyed by the idea that the intensely creative environment and home of SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) was where Oddpodz needed to be. Moving is such a disruptive activity. Re-rooting an early stage company to an unfamiliar community that has its own distinct lifestyle characteristics is an adventure.

There were days I thought, "What have we done? This is a nightmare." The place I had chosen to live seemed so cute and charming a month ago. Now it seemed like a dungeon in hell. Downtown Savannah has incredibly beautiful historic homes. I had elected to live in what is called a "garden apartment." Once I got unpacked, I discovered a more accurate name was "garden of darkness." The place got no sunlight at any point during the day. The air-conditioning unit sounded like a train, and those furry uninvited guests threw me over the edge. I felt like a psycho-chick ready for the asylum, instead of the leader of an exciting start-up. I wasn't sleeping; I was anxious and couldn't concentrate on anything.

If this was a test, I passed. Fortunately, the critters turned out to be my allies because without them I could not have gotten out of my lease. Whoever said, "everything happens for a reason" had the right idea. This taught me that when leading a start-up, your living situation and space is critically important -- especially true for a virtual business. Feeling secure, happy, and calm cannot be compromised. So I moved. Again. The great thing about history is that it's over. I found a very cool place six miles from downtown on Bull River. It's new and bright. The new living situation makes me feel energized, inspired, and back to my old self -- ready to take on the world.

We are making great progress with Oddpodz, (our social network and nation for creatives) despite our random distractions. My universal recommendation on facing challenges is simple: learn from them and shake them off quickly. The nature of most start-ups means you'll be using unproven concepts and evolving technology to implement new ways of doing things. If you are not making frequent mistakes, you are likely not doing enough activity. If you hang on to these "teaching experiences" they will weigh you down and immobilize your growth. If you live them, learn from them and then let them go, you will be a much smarter and stronger business entrepreneur.

Looking forward on some choices and missteps we've made, I share with you what we learned in four key areas:

Technology

Outsourcing technology is a commitment akin to marriage so make sure to do your homework. Try a few getting-to-know-you dates (projects) before you commit to a long-term relationship with any one vendor. Divorcing a vendor of any magnitude can be a time consuming and costly expense; it can become traumatic to extract yourself from a big bad relationship.

Never agree to open-ended hourly work. Define in extreme detail your specific needs and your expectations of them; get their expectations of you and make a schedule together. Include penalties if they fail to meet deadlines. If enough deadlines are missed it could provide grounds for a divorce. Make sure that planning, creation and compatibility testing (on all versions of all browsers) are in all project specifications. Beyond technical skill, make sure that personal chemistry, working style, and cultures will mesh to your satisfaction. Otherwise, start packing your bags.

Publicity

The power of good press is priceless but getting press coverage is not always a bargain. When Oddpodz.com first launched, we would write our own news releases and send them out on PR wires. We got decent coverage. Then I read about a trend where the PR firms pitch stories and you only pay after placement. We gave that a try. It was a good concept, but did it get us the kind of coverage we had hoped for? No.

Here's how it went for us: We committed to a monthly fee cap. Then an account rep pitched the agreed-upon angles of our story. In return we got a hefty bill every month for either high fee placements in high circulation publications with insignificant content about our company, or lots of good content placements in dinky, low readership periodicals. That PR failed to draw new members.

Is there a perfect PR solution for a start-up? I don't think so. One should first focus on creating truly compelling news, then experiment with different media channels. Think beyond print, establish a blogging regime and include the voice of all of your staff and supporters.

Outside Insight

When you are running a start-up you get very close to every piece of your company. While that has merit, stepping away and listening to outsiders is equally important. Oddpodz gathers insight daily by setting up easy ways for visitors to communicate to us. We try to respond to everyone with an email acknowledgment and we always thank them for their opinions, whether we agree or not. Beyond this daily gathering of intelligence, we recently held a daylong brain-dump with our core staff and a mix of bright minds from outside our company. This expense was a valuable exercise. We confirmed many issues and learned about completely new experiences with, and impressions of, our company.

Should you decide to conduct an insight session, consider the following:

  • At the onset, outline your session goals, schedule and budget.
  • Carefully screen your participants for market compatibility and skill set.
  • Have them sign a confidentiality agreement in advance.
  • Send them required pre-session prep work.
  • Pay them.
  • Record the sessions in audio and in notes.
  • Send them a thank you note and follow-up.

Brand Distinction

With any brand, being different is a vital strategy to making a lasting, meaningful mark on your market. To avoid being just another clone in your category, you've got to present yourself in a distinct fashion on multiple fronts, yet respect human conditioning. In the case of Oddpodz, this conditioning comes from the pioneers in social networking (Myspace, Facebook, etc.). Even though social networking is a fairly new phenomenon, standards have already been established. A large chunk of the population is accustomed to certain familiarities, like what one calls things, how one finds information, and how content is organized.

When we launched Oddpodz, we tried very hard to be extremely different. We quickly learned that some things need to follow the course of your category, unless you have truckloads of cash and time to burn.

  • Simplicity rules!
  • Clever (overly unique) words on navigation will reduce click-throughs.
  • Make sure your editorial content does not look like an ad.
  • Ad overload results in user turn-off.
  • As your community grows, only then can you take chances with uncommon language and navigation methods.

In closing, start-ups operate in a different world than most companies. Our clock and emotional state is unique. A month of development time feels like a lifetime. One hour you're on a business high and the next hour you're scared to death. The journey is exhilarating.

When you feel like raising the white flag, take a deep breath and ask yourself: is anyone literally shooting at me? If not, then get back on that roller coaster and keep moving forward. Without the passion, dreams, and aspirations of entrepreneurs like us, this world would be dreadfully boring and would make no real progress.

Go ahead. Enjoy your ride!

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